The dome of the sky arched majestically above her as she flew high above the woodlands, soaring effortlessly amid a flock of batlings. Their chirps filled the air around her and she answered in kind, not understanding any of it but pleased to be joining their conversation. Suddenly they shot up... and a second later she was falling toward the tightly rolled spiral shapes below—falling—falling—
Lisa Duncan awoke with a start, heart pounding loudly in her ears, and instinctively burrowed deeper under her blankets. For a moment her brain held on to the image of the woodlands rushing up to meet her; but then it cleared, and around her she saw the comforting familiarity of her room at the Dayspring Hive.
Swallowing hard, she looked across to the other bed, wondering if she'd made enough noise in her nightmare to wake her roommate. But Sheelah's breathing was still slow and even, and in the faint light sneaking in around the curtains Lisa could see her lying wrapped in her blankets with the kind of rag-doll limpness only a sleeping person can achieve. Lisa's watch was just visible on top of her dresser; teeking it over, she saw that it was five-fifty. Ten more minutes and the gently insistent wake-up buzzer would sound, officially beginning the hive's day.
Teeking the watch under the blankets, Lisa fastened it onto her wrist, debating whether or not to just go ahead and get up. The bed was awfully comfortable; but on the other hand, hitting the floor bathroom ten minutes ahead of the other girls was definitely worth the sacrifice. Sliding out of bed, she floated through the air to the door, teeking it open as she got there, and flew out into the hall.
The large, chrome-and-ripplestone room was, as she'd expected, deserted. Entering the nearest booth, she took care of the first order of business. Then she moved to one of the washbasins, shucked off her nightgown and gave her face, hands, and arms a quick wash. Tossing the damp washcloth and towel into the corner hamper, she picked up her nightgown... and hesitated. "No," she muttered out loud, resolutely turning her eyes away from the full-length mirror fastened to the side wall. "Just morbid curiosity, that's all." But as she slid the nightgown back over her head, her hands quietly stole across her chest, confirming what she suspected but had forbidden her eyes to learn.
Fourteen years old, and still flat as a board.
Sighing with a mixture of relief and guilt, she straightened her gown and returned to her room, forcing herself to walk this time. Flat-chested or not, the end of her preteen life was far too close to ignore. Most of her friends already had their breast buds. Several of them had the first bits of pubic hair, as well... and in those preteens the loss of their teekay was already beginning. She'd better get used to staying on the ground.
Unbidden, tears filled Lisa's eyes; angrily, she rubbed them away. Stop it! she told herself harshly. You're acting like a little girl. You think you're the only preteen in the world who doesn't want to grow up? Act your age!
The pep talk didn't help. Closing the door behind her, she crossed the cold floor and climbed back into bed. Dejectedly, she stared at the ceiling, watching the shifting pattern of light as the conetree outside the window swayed in the breeze, her mind churning with resentment and bitterness. The wake-up buzzer, when it sounded, was almost a relief.
"Sgnorf!" Sheelah said suddenly, a sort of enunciated grunt that punctuated her return to consciousness. "Grack, it's cold in here. Did you sneak the window open last night, Lisa?"
"Just a crack." Lisa slid out from under the blankets and stood up. "Come on, get up—it's not that cold."
"Tell that to my blood," Sheelah's muffled response came as she pulled the blankets up over her nose. Her single visible eye rotated, and the curtains drew back, letting in a dazzling blast of sunlight. Squinting in the sudden glare, Lisa watched as she teeked the window closed.
"Looks like a nice day," Sheelah commented, climbing out of bed and stretching like a cat. Her own emerging breasts were little lumps under her nightgown, and Lisa felt a flash of jealousy. Sheelah's teekay would begin to fade any time now—would be gone by the end of the year—and yet she remained invariably cheerful. Maturing gracefully... Feeling worse than ever, Lisa turned her back on her roommate and began to dress.
By the time the two preteens emerged together from their room, the hallway outside was alive with chattering ten and eleven-year-old girls. Some, still in night dress, were heading for the bathroom; but most were going the other direction, toward the stairway and breakfast. Halfway down the hall, there was a sudden outbreak of giggles, and a head rose above the general level of the crowd. Another followed immediately, and the aerial game of tag was on.
"Back on the floor!" Lisa snapped, with more heat than was really called for. "You know the rules!"
Guilty faces glanced around and disappeared as the two girls hastily dropped back to their feet. Lisa lengthened her stride, intending to catch up with them, but had only taken two steps when Sheelah caught her arm. "Hey, take it easy," she said in a low tone.
"No one's allowed to fly in a hall where three or more other people are present," Lisa quoted stiffly, even as her anger cooled.
"You're telling me?—who still holds the Dayspring point-loss record for that particular offense?"
Lisa sighed and gave up. "Rena and Ajie are supposed to know better, though."
"So they're extra lively today." Sheelah shrugged. "It's not worth ruining their day over." She peered closely at Lisa. "What's eating you this morning, anyway?"
"Nothing—just a little grouchy, I guess," Lisa said, reluctant to talk about her feelings even to Sheelah. "Come on, let's get downstairs."
Within a few minutes they had walked down the five flights of stairs to the spacious dining room that sat between the two living-area wings. Going through the serving line, they arrived at their table to find most of the others already present and attacking their trays with the exuberance and noise eight-year-olds always seemed to be able to generate. Lisa wrinkled her nose slightly. Overseeing the table was enough of a chore even at the best of times—the Eights had nearly half the teekay strength they would ever possess but were a long way from the maturity and self-discipline that would keep it under control, and Lisa was forever having to ground floating salt shakers and block the completion of spur-of-tne-moment pranks. Today, feeling as she did, even having to look down the table at their youthful faces was going to be painful.
For a few moments, though, the ordeal was going to be postponed. Sitting on the table at her place was a yellow triangle, signifying that she was to check in with the Girls Senior. Leaving her tray, she picked up the yellow paper and headed to the Senior's table.
"Ah, yes—Lisa." Gavra Norward held up a finger and finished her mouthful of food. "We've got a small problem with work assignments this morning," she said when her mouth was clear. "You're going to have to substitute for Kaarin Smale at the power station—she's down with the flu, and no one else I'd trust with a flock of Sevens is available."
In spite of her depression Lisa felt a warm glow at the compliment. Keeping Sevens entertained while they turned a huge flywheel was indeed a difficult job. "What about my team? You're not going to send them to the construction site alone, are you?"
Gavra shook her head. "I've already talked with the foreman there, and he said they could do without you today—if necessary he'll give the riveters a three-day weekend. Anyway, they have no choice—power station's always got priority. Let me see...." She picked up the small notebook lying by her plate and leafed through it. "Okay, you'll pick up your crew—six boys and eight girls—at the front door in forty minutes and take them to the west power station. I guess we'll give your usual group the day off."
Lisa shrugged. "They could come to the power station with me," she suggested. "We could put twice as much energy into the flywheel that way."
"Thanks, but no," Gavra smiled. "Your girls have served their time on boredom duty. We'll just give them a free day."
Lisa nodded and made her way back to her own table. The Eights—most of them at least halfway finished with their food—seemed more subdued than usual, enough so that she wondered if Sheelah had taken advantage of her absence to clue them in on her mood. In a way it made things worse; she remembered vividly a couple of the "evergrouch" preteens she'd been terrified of as a young girl. I will not become like that, she told herself fiercely, and made a supreme effort to smile at the others before starting to eat. The underlying feeling of tension remained, though. Hurrying through her breakfast, she set her tray on the conveyor and got out.
But harsh moods had never been able to get a solid hold on her, and this time, fortunately, was no exception. Somewhere en route to the west power station her depression vanished into the brilliant June sunshine as she and her chattering Sevens soared high above the rooftops, the younger ones engaging in the sort of free-form tag forbidden inside the hive buildings. Watching them play—feeling the wind in her hair as Barona's buildings rolled beneath them—it was somehow impossible to truly believe she would ever lose her teekay. She chose, at least for the moment, to ignore the quiet voice of logic within her.
Lisa hadn't been to any of Barona's three power stations since she was eight, but the place was no less intimidating now that she was older and bigger. The main room's two massive flywheels, in particular, were still sort of frightening—she could still remember nightmares she'd had where one of them broke loose and she couldn't move to get out of the way....
Giving her head a sharp shake, she put the memory out of her mind. "Let's sit over here, shall we?" she said to her crew, indicating a spot a dozen meters from the flat side of their assigned flywheel. "Everybody bring a chair over and let's get busy."
The task was accomplished with a good deal more noise and banging of chairs than was necessary, but Lisa knew enough to be patient. "All right," she said when they were finally settled. "What would you like to do first?"
"See a movie," one of the boys spoke up promptly.
"Oh, you like movies, do you?" Lisa asked, her eye on the gauge set into the flywheel's housing. The rotational speed, which had been dropping slowly as its energy was turned into electricity, was now holding steady as the kids began teeking. Still lower than the power station people liked to have it, but Lisa knew they'd be able to catch up later. "What sort of movie would you like?"
"Monsters!" the boy exclaimed.
"Can't we sing instead?" a girl spoke up. "Or see a movie about real animals?"
"Yeah," another seconded. "Those monster movies are dumb."
"Tell you what," Lisa said. "Let's start with something different and save the movies and singing for later. We'll take turns telling stories, okay? They can be as scary as you want," she added as the boy who'd voted for monster movies opened his mouth to object. He closed it again, and a gleam came into his eye.
Leaning back, Lisa stifled a satisfied smile. She'd never yet seen a round of storytelling that couldn't hold a work crew's attention for at least an hour... and she would still have the movies and singing to fall back on. "Okay, who's ready to start?"
Three hands shot up. Lisa picked one and settled down to listen as the girl launched into a story about three dragonmites and a batling, a story Lisa remembered hearing on the story tapes several years ago. The other kids obviously hadn't heard it, though; they sat in absorbed silence, only the flywheel's rotation gauge showing that they were still doing their job. Across the room, she noted, the flickering light of a projector showed that the group at the second flywheel had already started a movie, though the picture itself—projected against the flywheel's spinning surface—was invisible from where she sat. He'll learn, she thought a bit smugly, eyeing the preteen in charge of the other crew. About an hour after lunch they'll be bouncing off the ceiling with boredom—and he won't have anything in reserve to keep them quiet.
Glancing once at her watch, Lisa returned her attention to the girl's story and began to plan what they would do next.